Love them or hate them, the chin up is one of the most challenging body-weight exercises and one that has so many health and well being benefits. While some gym-goers make it look easy and perform rep after rep, others struggle to do one, but unfortunately others even avoid this movement all together.
This is the exercise that people wish they could do, lifting your own body weight with great form and consistency will be the base of your growth and development.
This is one of those exercises where the more you do it, the more you can do it!
What Muscles Do Chin Ups Work?
Here are the muscles worked when performing a chin up:
- Latissimus dorsi: 117-130%
- Biceps brachii: 78-96%
- Infraspinatus: 71-79%
- Lower trapezius: 45-56%
- Pectoralis major: 44-57%
- Erector spinae: 39-41%
- External oblique: 31-35
Latissimus Dorsi & Biceps Brachii
Latissimus dorsi (lats) is the most powerful pulling muscle in your back, and during a chin-up, it’s the primary mover, or the muscle that provides most of the power to bring your body up to the bar.
Furthermore, a series of powerful muscles in your upper and lower arms kick in to help accomplish this motion. These include the biceps brachii, brachioradialis and brachialis. Part of your triceps — the big muscle on the back of your upper arm — also helps to stabilise your arm.
The infraspinatus muscle spans across the entire back of your shoulder blade and stretches out to the upper arms. Beneath the infraspinatus you will then find the teres minor, which is on top of the teres major. Together, these three muscles also assist your lats when doing a chin-up.
Strengthening your trapezius is an important part of any workout routine. This muscle is involved in the mobility and stability of the scapula (shoulder blade) during the chin up.
For maximum back and shoulder performance during the chin up, you want to be able to depress and retract your scapula, which you can’t do if you have weak lower traps. Also, there needs to be a balance between your lower traps, upper traps, deltoids (delts).
Not one of the front runners in regards to contribution to the chin up but, the pectoralis major, or chest muscle, is very much required during the chin-up.
The pectoralis major activates as you pull yourself up and over the bar. However, it doesn’t contribute nearly as much as other muscles like the latissimus or biceps.
The erector spinae muscles lie on each side of the vertebral column and extend alongside the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical sections of the spine.
The erector spinae are a collection of nine muscles that function to straighten the back and provide for side-to-side rotation, flexion and extension, however during the chin up its stabilising properties are relied upon.
The external obliques on either side of your abdominals not only help rotate the trunk, but they perform a few other vital functions. These muscles help pull the chest, as a whole, downwards, which compresses the abdominal cavity.
Although relatively minor in scope, the external oblique muscle also supports the rotation of the spine. During the chin up these muscles are required to stabilise and engage with the body’s core to enable the body to be lifted as one solid structure.
They also help to keep the core, hips and lower body rigid and prevent unhelpful swinging of the body.
This is an age old question in regards to which is better for us, however if you can follow up that question with this question, what for? then you will certainly find purpose and benefits from both.
The clearest difference between both movements is the grip type and position of the hands on the bar.
Pull-ups require a pronated (overhand) grip where your palms point outwards so that they are facing away from you. Chin Ups require a supinated (underhand) grip where your palms point inwards so that they are facing you.
The “what for” question refers to your set goals, whether you are just starting out or a keen gym-goer having a specific health and fitness goal is crucial. Now this goal would determine which variation, the pull up or chin up, would be more beneficial.
To help figure this out we must start to understand the differences in muscles worked.
These exercises are not the same, typically if someone can perform 10 chin ups then they can usually perform around 6 pull ups, due to the differences in grip, muscles used and strength.
Both exercises will primarily train your back, lats and biceps, however, there are some slight differences in the degree in which those muscles get worked.
Chin ups put your biceps in a stronger line of pull, they’ll typically hit your biceps a bit harder than pull ups will. On the other hand, pull ups may hit your lats a bit harder, mostly as a result of your biceps being in a slightly weaker position.
Research suggests that the general pattern of sequential muscle activation with both pull-ups and chin-ups start with the lower trapezius and pectoralis major and completed with biceps brachii and latissimus dorsi recruitment.
The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher muscle engagement during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up. This would be interesting to note depending on your fitness goals and which muscles you looking to primarily target.
Two similar, yet different exercises with some obvious benefits and differences between the two, most notably biceps involvement with the supinated position of the forearm during the chin up.
If you are working out to be aesthetically pleasing then it appears the chin up is best for you, high lat activity with greater biceps and pec activity.
Further, academics also suggest that chin-ups are going to involve a larger amount of muscle and are much easier to progress on weighted and progression, which is the key to results. In addition chin-ups also allow a greater range of motion when done properly because they allow the elbows to travel farther behind the back causing a greater contraction.
With these in mind chin ups work biceps more because it uses extra muscle mass.
So, if your goal is to build muscle or get stronger, it might be a good idea to use both exercises in a complementary way to support a well rounded upper body workout plan.
Wraping It Up
Chin-ups can help improve grip strength, posture and appearance, while also helping to strengthen muscles that stabilise the spine. This, in turn, can help reduce the athlete’s risk of back pain and injury.
Even if you are only able to do one or two chin-ups at a time, this exercise offers varied benefits, especially for the back, shoulders, forearms and biceps.